The Downward Path of Toxic Partisanship

Every time it seems like we’ve reached maximum partisanship, when the parties couldn’t distrust each other more and it seems like our system is on the brink of becoming unworkable, it always seems to get worse.

That’s my immediate takeaway from listening to the January 26, 2001 episode of This American Life that investigated the reaction to the 2001 election and the resulting Supreme Court case that gave George W. Bush the presidency. The show examines the election through a couple of different lenses including a look at the buildup of the Republican electoral machine, differing political views within a marriage and different legal opinions on the ensuring case.

In the opening,  host Ira Glass conducted  a quick interview with World War II veteran Robert Brown about how vitriolic politics was getting:

Ira Glass:Do you think politics are getting more bitter?

Robert Brown: Oh yes. Terribly so.

Ira Glass: And is that a bad thing? Is that worrisome?

Robert Brown: Very worrisome to me. I don’t know where it’s going to end. Fortunately, I don’t have to see too much more of it. You do. You’ll have to see a lot of it

If you showed me that interview today, I would have assumed it was conducted yesterday.

Following that, David Brock, the eventual founder of Media Matters for America, discussed the extreme attempts Republican organizations went to try to dig up dirt on President Clinton. Here’s Brock:

The radical right wasn’t pretending to be outraged at Clinton for dramatic effect; the rage was real, even when they knew they were stretching the facts to make their case.

The Republicans saw their subsequent failure to remove Clinton from office as a historic defeat, but they didn’t blame themselves. In their minds, they had simply been outmaneuvered by the oily Clinton-Gore spin machine, tricky lawyers, and the liberal-leaning media. And they would do everything they could to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again.

Just replace Clinton’s name with Obama and that statement still rings as true today as it did in the 1990s. Brock continues on to discuss how any court case that went against Bush was considered “partisan and illegitimate” by Republican strategists. Newt Gingrich was a radical, right-wing legislator leading the charge against Clinton and Gore. Now, he’s a Republican host on CNN’s Crossfire. He’s no longer as partisan as was during the 1990s, but the fact that he is now considered the moderate wing of the Republican Party is incredible.

Ira Glass points out that even after the Supreme Court delivered its verdict, 40% of Americans still did not believe that Bush was the legitimate president. This was after an election in which Gore won the popular vote and required a Supreme Court case to decide. After this past election, which President Obama won easily with almost five million more votes and 332 electoral votes, almost half of Republican voters think that ACORN stole the election. This was a big victory for Democrats that no serious Republican would debate, yet nearly half of Republican voters doubt its validity! A quarter of them wanted their state to secede from the union.

The entire show was built upon the idea of how nasty and partisan politics has become. Yet, it has become much worse. Distrust between congressional leaders hit a new low this week. Polarization in Congress is at record levels. It’s amazing really. No matter how ugly it gets, our two parties can always find a way to get uglier.


Charities Should Perform Experiments

The most recent episode of This American Life spends the first part of the show examining two different charities, GiveDirectly and Heifer International. GiveDirectly is a revolutionary new organization that gives money to poor people in Kenya. Its philosophy is pretty straightforward: poor people know what they need most so just give them the money to do so. It has seen remarkable results in Kenya and The Life You Can Save ranks it as the fourth most effective charity. It was started by a group of grad students in a development economics class who decided to give money to Africans and see what happened. More importantly, they’re very data-centric and are committed to figuring out whether giving poor Africans money is effective. The grad students are so committed to it that they’re running a randomized controlled trial where researchers are traveling to two villages right next to each other, one where the residents received money from GiveDirectly and one where they didn’t. It’s a massive survey with hundreds of questions that are trying to isolate down how the money affected all aspects of the Kenyans’ lives:

Have health outcomes improved? Has your income improved? Have you been able to feed yourself and have basic nutrition? How have family dynamics evolved? Do you feel like you have more respect in the family? School attendance, all these sorts of things. You do those in both cases and you compare.

Heifer International, on the other hand, takes a different approach to helping poor Africans: it gives them a cow. Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein, who travelled to Kenya for this report, commented on how large the cows were:

And let’s just say right off, these were some very impressive cows. They looked strong and healthy. They looked like they could eat the other cows we saw in Kenya.

You can imagine how helpful a strong, healthy cow would be for poor, rural Kenyans. Overall, both charities are looking to improve the lives of impoverished Africans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking to figure out which charity is best at doing so. Yet, that is basically Heifer International’s position, at least according to the Vice President of Heifer’s Africa programs, Elizabeth Bintliff. GiveDirectly challenged Heifer International to a charity-vs-charity competition in the same manner of the experiment above. They’d take two villages right next to each other and GiveDirectly would give money to residents of one while Heifer would give cows to the residents of another. Then they’d have independent researchers come in and collect all the data and figure out which one improved the lives of the Kenyans the most. This is the exact type of research that charities need to be doing. But Bintliff declined:

I mean, as an African woman, that sounds to me like a terrible idea. I mean, it sounds like an experiment, and we’re not about experiments. These are lives of real people and we have to do what we believe is correct. We can’t make experiments with people’s lives. They’re just– they’re people. It’s too important.

Bintliff obviously is very committed to Heifer and has devoted her life to helping Africans. It’s very noble, but her hesitance to use data hinders the ability of charities to help people. Maybe Heifer is very effective at improving the lives of Africans. Maybe it isn’t. We don’t know right now, because we don’t have the data. Yet, we have every ability to collect the data! Researchers actually can do a pretty good job of measuring happiness. And I understand that Bintliff doesn’t want to perform experiments, but charities will be so much more effective and help poor Africans even more if we do perform experiments. It’s a shame, because GiveDirectly has seen such promising results that I’d be fascinated to see how Heifer stacks up. But it looks like we’ll never know. In the end, Bintliff’s refusal to perform the experiments hurts those who she’s looking to help.